- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

HONG KONG — Ordinary citizens were expected to turn out in heavy numbers and hand most of their support to opposition politicians branded as troublemakers or even “traitors” by Beijing, but the pro-democracy camp was expected to fall short of a majority under an election system critics say is rigged.

Today’s vote follows a campaign marred by scandal and charges of intimidation. Still, the elections could give pro-democracy figures more clout than they have held since China reclaimed Hong Kong in July 1997.

Analysts predicted the opposition might claim 25 to 28 of the Legislative Council’s 60 seats, compared with 22 now, which could further weaken the unpopular government of Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa by making it harder for Mr. Tung to get his bills passed.

Beijing’s authoritarian leadership has been clearly worried about the outcome of Hong Kong’s greatest exercise of democracy since the hand over. Critics charge that China, or its local allies, have mounted an orchestrated campaign to hold back the opposition as much as possible.

Hong Kong authorities have rejected such charges, and election officials promised free and fair elections.

The politicians made final appeals to the voters yesterday, seeking to rally supporters amid last-minute jockeying in some key, tight races.

Ordinary voters will directly pick 30 of Hong Kong’s lawmakers; the other 30 are chosen by a relatively small group of special interest voters, such as business leaders, doctors and accountants, who are expected to back pro-Beijing candidates.

Critics say the system is unfair, giving 3.2 million registered voters the right to choose half of the seats while the other half are picked by fewer than 200,000 people.

Pro-Beijing politicians were also campaigning hard yesterday in Hong Kong against the territory’s best-known opposition figure, Democratic Party lawmaker Martin Lee, in an apparently close race.

“It’s a very tight race — I’m doing my best,” Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Lee brought in help from a popular former radio host, Albert Cheng, who is expected to win a seat of his own in another district. Mr. Cheng is one of three radio hosts who went off the air in May, after receiving threats over their pro-democracy views in one of the biggest controversies surrounding the contests.

The Democrats were hurt by money and sex scandals embroiling two candidates, one of whom was locked up in mainland China on charges of consorting with a prostitute.

The political atmosphere in Hong Kong has been highly charged since 500,000 people stunned Beijing and Hong Kong leaders by turning out on July 1, 2003, to march against an anti-subversion bill viewed as a threat to freedoms. Mr. Tung withdrew the bill.

Many residents of Hong Kong have been clamoring for the right to directly pick their leader in 2007 and all lawmakers in 2008, but Beijing stirred a public outrage by ruling it out in April — a decision expected to create a backlash against China’s allies in the election.

Beijing’s supporters say China’s unelected communist government had been remarkably progressive for allowing people in Hong Kong to choose half of their representatives.

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